In response to the state’s unmitigated failure to comply with a court order issued in February designed to ensure the timely provision of food stamp assistance to needy families, U.S. District Judge William Smith today scheduled a public court hearing on Thursday in which he anticipates he will “proceed with appointment of a special master” to oversee a plan of action that will compel the state’s compliance with that order.
The February order, issued in response to a lawsuit filed by the ACLU and the National Center for Law and Economic Justice (NCLEJ) over the state’s disastrous UHIP rollout for beneficiaries of the federal food stamp program known as SNAP, was never complied with. This prompted the two groups last month to ask Judge Smith to issue additional remedies to ensure compliance with the court order. An in-chambers conference had been scheduled for Thursday morning to address that request, but Judge Smith issued an order today converting it into a public hearing, citing public comments already made by the State about the potential appointment of a special master.
In addition to making public the affidavit of retired attorney Deming Sherman, who is being considered for the position of special master if one is appointed, the Judge released letters written by the State and by ACLU volunteer Lynette Labinger about that possibility. The ACLU’s letter argues that the state has engaged in a “pattern of delaying this enforcement proceeding” and has “never forthrightly disclosed to the Court or to the Plaintiffs the discovery of massive additional systemic errors and irregularities.”
The February court order established a timetable mandating steady improvement every month over a period of months in the agency’s processing of SNAP applications and provisions of timely benefits. The court order also mandated that the plaintiffs be given a monthly report on the agency’s level of compliance with those benchmarks. Full compliance was scheduled to be achieved by August 2017, and reported to the plaintiffs by September 15.
However, the agency has never come close to reaching those monthly benchmarks, which by August required the agency to achieve timely issuance of benefits to eligible families in 96% of SNAP applications. Compounding the damage, the state admitted in September that it was unable to even provide its mandated monthly report indicating the agency’s compliance status – and, further, that earlier monthly reports may have contained inaccurate information as well. Following that admission came another bombshell last week – a discovery by the State that thousands of additional UHIP program applications had not been processed.
Over the course of many months, while the ACLU and NCLEJ raised concerns about non-compliance with the benchmarks and the accuracy of the monthly reports, the Department of Human Services consistently painted a rosy picture of progress by the Department and by Deloitte, the private vendor responsible for the UHIP system, in resolving the program’s many problems.
Under federal law, states participating in the food stamp program are required to process food stamp applications within thirty days of the date of application, and to provide expedited food stamps to eligible households within seven days. The federally funded program helps put food on the table of Rhode Island’s poorest residents, but since the implementation of the UHIP system, those deadlines have routinely not been met.
The court hearing is scheduled for Thursday morning at 9:00 AM in Judge Smith’s courtroom.
When the suit was filed in December, the ACLU and NCLEJ argued that the “systematically inadequate and faulty statewide implementation” of UHIP was causing “thousands of households to suffer the imminent risk of ongoing hunger as a result of being denied desperately needed assistance to help them feed their families.” Last week, the state acknowledged it had learned about "thousands" of unprocessed UHIP applications, a revelation that the ACLU argued was proof that the "state is simply incapable of resolving this problem on its own."
Background on the case can be found here.